Does anyone really know what time it is? A philosophical question embedded in a rock song from my early adolescence. However, that existential question remains vital even today if we as the church of Jesus Christ are to stay focused on that call to be the Body of Christ in a particular time and place.
One of the things that has been on my mind for the past several years is the challenges facing the church of Jesus Christ today. Particularly in the North American context, probably because that is where I live, move and have my being (to borrow a phrase). What constantly amazes me is that something that has so occupied my time and thinking, seems to rarely reach the level of consciousness in most parish pastors I speak to. In all fairness, this quest began a few years back when I was pursuing my Doctor of Ministry Degree, so I have spent a lot of time researching this, but my understanding of the problems facing the church today are so manifold that being ignorant of what is happening around the church and in the world today is hampering the efforts to reach our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We operate today as if it is still the 1950s and the church has a privileged place in the culture. Maybe we do that because that makes the job of the pastor easier. Our congregations don’t like to think that change will be needed. We love the status quo that surrounds the idea that the church still has a favored place in culture. What we, as pastors, seem to know intuitively is summarized in this observation: “In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decision, strength and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going—in short someone who can make hard problems simple.” (Ronald Heifetz) So even if we know what is taking place around us we don’t want to raise the level of anxiety of our congregations so we keep quiet and pretend that nothing has changed!
While that might allow us to keep our jobs, and maintain stability in the life of the congregation, are we being faithful to our calling? I can hear you respond, my calling is to “pastor” this particular church that has called me, and if they cannot bear to hear the message of change, then I cannot bring that message. I wonder, would you take the same approach if the building were on fire? I know what you would respond, “Of course not.” However, if my analysis is correct, and that is backed up by multiple sources more learned than me, then the building “is on fire”. If my understanding of the changes in culture is correct, the church of Jesus Christ in the North American context is facing unprecedented challenges and changes in the very near future that we cannot ignore! Or we ignore them at our own peril.
What do we do about these challenges and changes? First we can do what we have been doing, nothing, and hope that the changes pass us by and leave us alone. I wonder if you have been watching the news lately? A couple of hurricanes have recently pummeled the US coast lines. Some people took the approach that nothing bad will happen to them if they stay put. However, for many of those folks, the outcome was not what they expected, and they lost not only property but their lives as well. Again, if I am correct, and I may well be wrong, there is a hurricane or even a tsunami of change sweeping across our nation and no church will be left untouched by that change.
A second and I believe more prudent approach would be this, recognize that something is happening and start to engage your congregation around this issue. We also need to heed these words about the volatility of change and the challenges of change. “Change is difficult. It challenges adaptability, flexibility and resilience of congregations in a rapidly changing world. On the verge of change, leaders cannot command members to go from. They can invite members to come to and their best they can assist members in find inspiration needed to manage the pain of change. Ideally, inspiration comes as members and leaders discern how God is calling and leading the congregation forward as they respond to change as a call to faithful following.” (McFayden, Kenneth J.; Strategic Leadership for a Change, Facing our Losses, Finding our Future; Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia; 2009) I like his comment, we cannot command our congregations to change. What we can do is invite, inform and challenge our leadership to understand the changes that are taking place. We can recommend books and webinars, or blog sites to help inform their opinions. The key word here is invite, and inform, we cannot command our churches to change.
While I am no prophet, I would suggest that the first approach is going to end with either the closure of the local church, or being relegated to irrelevance by their local communities. You see if we lose our connection to the people around us, if the voice from our pulpits speaks peace when there is none, we are no better than the prophets of Jeremiah’s day, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.” ( Jeremiah 8:11). Now I may be all wet, and this turmoil that is rocking our country is just a passing fad, and if the church maintains its current course then everything will be fine. However, I think not. The challenge for us as pastors is to lead the members of our churches to ask the questions. To raise the anxiety a bit, and ask the questions.
I should also warn you that doing that could endanger your position. Why did the prophets of Jeremiah’s day preach peace with an advancing army moving toward Israel? Because they liked their job more than faithfulness to God who had called them. If you want to be palace prophet, don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. Preach peace and prosperity. However, if you follow the end of the story of Jeremiah, that peace did not materialize, and I don’t see it showing up anytime soon in our nation either!
Now you have two choices. You can decide that I am an addled, grumpy old man who is sour on church and has lost faith in the God who called me, or you might consider that what I say has merit. It is entirely up to you. There is something that amazes me as I approach my later years and it this. When I was a young man I looked to Jeremiah for inspiration as he was a young prophet. Now that I am a bit older I look to Jeremiah as a prophet who never quit speaking the word of God even when no one listened. The choice is yours, but I would encourage you to take a look around, maybe even pick up a book or two on church leadership in this current age. Who knows, I might be wrong…..